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Snorkelling in the Galapagos Islands – a whole new underwater world

David WilcockDavid Wilcock and his wife travelled with Think Galapagos on our November 2016 small group trip. Before David left, he wrote a blog describing his long held dream to visit the Galapagos.  In this new piece, he describes some of the highlights of his trip.

Readers of a certain age might just remember the television documentaries which the BBC screened between 1956 and 1959 entitled ‘Diving to Adventure’ and  ‘The Undersea World of Adventure’, filmed by the Austrian marine biologist Hans Hass and his wife, Lotte.

Hans and Lotte Hass were pioneers in undersea photography, capturing some of the first colour footage of sharks and stingrays during their expeditions beneath the oceans of the world, which included in 1953 a visit to the Galapagos archipelago, the Cocos Islands and the Caribbean.

The resulting documentary ‘Under the Caribbean’ (released as the German-language film ‘Unternehmen Xarifa’) won Hans Hass an Oscar in 1954, for ‘extraordinary underwater photography’.

I can still see Hans and Lotte as they appeared on the black-and-white telly in the living room of our terraced house in Wembley back in the late 1950s - all film-star smiles and looking fit, lithe and bronzed on the deck of one of their expedition boats, before diving into the deep to flirt once more with giant squid, manta rays, or whale shark.

Fast-forward 60 years to November 2016, and to the deck of another ‘expedition boat’ - the motor yacht Tip Top III, moored just off the north western coast of San Cristobal, the easternmost island in the Galapagos archipelago.

Panga

Galapagos Small Group Trip

There are just 15 of us on this ‘Think Galapagos’ trip, mostly couples, and although we’ve known each other barely a week, the agreeably small size of our party has promoted a relaxed, good-natured warmth amongst us, which permits – or perhaps even invites – some light-hearted joshing.

We’re all kitted up in our wet-suits, with snorkels, masks and flippers in hand, ready to board the two small rigid-inflatable ‘Pangas’ that will take us to Kicker Rock, and the ultimate snorkelling experience with sharks, rays, turtles, sea lions and tropical fish of every shape and hue. But Hans and Lotte Hass we are not.

We might have had film-star smiles and lithe, bronzed, god-like bodies once  - some of us - but that was then, and this is now. We range in age from youngsters of 54, to grown-ups of 70. We are short, we are tall, we are thin - and we are the living testimony to the great truth that in the history of maritime outfitting, nobody has yet made a wet-suit that wasn’t a compromise!

Some of us have followed the code of advice that its best to buy a wet-suit that’s a snug fit, because the neoprene from which they’re made will flex once we dunk into the Pacific Ocean. Others, perhaps looking ahead, have bought a size larger, possibly in the expectation that they’ll ‘grow into it’. Well, good luck with that!

There are few of us that don’t have lumps, bumps, bulges, folds or creases in places where there shouldn’t ought to be. We are the very definition of ‘a motley crew’ - but on one thing we are in complete accord:  we’re not the least bit fazed by how we look.

It isn’t a fashion show.  We’re here for the encounter with Jaws’ smaller cousins and other creatures of the deep, and even if the neighbours are peeking out from behind their curtains, they will need extraordinarily good eyesight to see us here, in our podgy parade, 6,250 miles from home!

We divide into the two Pangas, and bump over the waves to Kicker Rock, the towering 500 ft. high remains of a volcanic cone that is slowly – over thousands of years - being reclaimed by the Pacific.

Kicker Rock

Panga

Natural erosion at the south eastern end of Kicker Rock has created a channel, making it appear as if it is two rocks, one large, one small, and the deep marine alleyway between them – mysterious and not a little foreboding to a lad who last snorkelled in the shallow, friendly sand pools of the beach at Bude when he was eight – is a ‘through route’ for White-tip reef sharks, Galapagos sharks, Hammerheads, and Spotted Eagle rays.

At this point, its probably a little late to be wondering which species of shark are the bad guys and which are the more cuddly, plankton-eating types, so its perhaps as well that I didn’t discover until returning to the UK that Scalloped Hammerheads, which regularly feature in the marine element of Galapagos publicity, are among the feistiest of the species. You can take comfort though from the statistics: there has never been a fatal Hammherhead attack on snorkellers in these islands.

Kicker Rock and its deep trench – 130 feet from the surface to the ocean floor – is the most enduringly popular snorkelling/dive site in the Galapagos – but on my first swim through the channel, I didn’t see a single shark. Yellow-finned Surgeonfish escorted me in friendly profusion, Rainbow Wrasse flitted nervously left and right, a shoal of what I’m told were Salema, was so vast as to be mind-bending, and three fathoms below me (roughly 18 feet), a fabulous Green Turtle ploughed his gentle furrow – but there was no shark.

Kicker Rock

I’d made the mistake though of hugging the wall of the larger of Kicker’s two rocks – simply because it was in sunshine, and I thought my underwater vision would benefit.

“Did you see sharks?” asked Carlos, our guide, after I’d clambered back onto the Panga.
“Not a sausage”.
“You want to swim through the channel again? Try staying in the middle this time. You should see them.”

We circled the smaller of the two rocks again in the Panga, and in I went. And suddenly, there they were  – ten, a dozen, maybe 15 of them – White-Tipped Reef Sharks, like those we’d seen earlier in the Mangrove lagoons of Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz...but bigger.  And then there was another shiver – maybe seven or eight of them, prowling and weaving their predatorial  figures-of-eight as sharks do,  perhaps 20 or 25 feet below me. It was electrifying.

Kicker Rock

Snorkelling – a highlight of any Galapagos holiday

A few days earlier, in our very first snorkelling session of the holiday, a smiling sea lion had come to see if I would be a willing player in a game of chase. A day or two later, in another session, a Green Turtle swam around me serenely, as fascinated with me as I was with him. Our underwater affair sadly lasted no more than two or three minutes – but how many such 1:1 wildlife experiences like this do you get in a lifetime?  I will treasure this one - a memorable privilege - for the rest of my days.

Green Sea Turtle

We’d gone to Galapagos for the wildlife right enough, and Think Galapagos had duly given notice in our itinerary that snorkelling was on the agenda every day bar one that we were in the islands.

Marine Iguana

But I could never have imagined or guessed that in addition to the barrow loads of iguanas, giant tortoises and lava lizards, the mockingbirds, the hawks, the albatross and the multiplicity of other fabulous creatures that we would see above sea level, another, completely different but equally fabulous vista of discovery lay waiting for us, just below the surface of the water. You only have to fix a mask around your eyes, stick a tube in your mouth – and suddenly, its all there for you – an entirely new world, literally awash with fascination.

Snorkelling will probably continue to be the most undersold element of any Galapagos holiday, but if you get the chance, seize it with both hands.  If you love wildlife, it will be one of the best  - and most rewarding – things you will ever do. Trust me.

 

All photographs by David Wilcock.

 

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